The History of Typography: Timeline & Explanation

Instructor: June Covington

June teaches art and art history. She has a master's degree in The Humanities.

Typography, the design and use of letters and symbols, is an essential aspect of human history. The development of new technologies have streamlined the process but the creative opportunities are still important for communication today.

The Early History of Alphabet Design

Human communication, early in history, began with the spoken word but eventually came to depend on written signs and symbols. Over centuries, these simple forms developed into hieroglyphs and alphabets. In early civilizations, letters and symbols were literally carved in stone to memorialize rulers and deities. Later, scrolls and books were handmade and each letter was written by hand.

Ancient Sumerian Clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform letters.
cuneiform clay tablet

The organization of the letters and symbols on the page was designed to be beautiful as well as useful. Chinese calligraphy also was designed to focus on the beauty of the marks. Styles of writing were created and organized according to legibility. Copyists were employed to literally handwrite books, one at a time, with tasks such as titles and illustrations done by specialists. In some ancient books, such as the Book of Kells, the beauty of the page overwhelms the content of the text.

This is a page from the Book of Kells, created around the year 800 CE. The manuscript is an example of hand-lettered typography. The illustrations are called illuminations, they were included to add to the meaning of the text.
Page from Book of Kells

The Printing Press Changes History

Printing, until the development of moveable type, was used by artisans and artists to reproduce pictures with an occasional word included. Even today, modern currency is made by creating a reverse image and then printing it onto the surface of the paper. A fresh dollar bill has the light texture of the printing plate.

Currency printed on paper was developed very early in Chinese history. This currency, printed around 1000CE, is from the Song Dynasty.
Early paper money, China, Song Dynasty

By the 1600's printing presses that used moveable type could be found worldwide. With this invention, whole books could be made in days rather than years. With the development of the printing press, letters and symbols take on a new importance. The earliest printed objects looked very much like hand-lettered books and scrolls that had been made before.

Typographical Design Advances with Technology

As books became available, literacy increased, and so did the desire to have books. More people had access to not only books but also more ephemeral objects such as handbills, signs and newspapers. Artisans and printers experimenting with typefaces in order to communicate emotion or importance tried out different sizes, colors and shapes. In the earliest days of moveable type, the letters were carved out of wood. Before long, printers switched to lead typefaces. Expanding on techniques that had been utilized in making coins.

A Chinese revolving typecase from an agricultural book published in the year 1313 CE during the Yuan Dynasty.
Typecase for a Chinese printing press from a book published in  1313 CE..

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